Sunday, November 14, 2010

Memories in a machine

Published in the Post Register, November, 2010.

It’s not exactly built for drift busting, but Bryant Belnap’s vintage snow machine is a thing of beauty all the same.

Part of the Belnap family for 45 years, the 1965 Arctic Cat 450 was No. 16 of 63 units of that model to come off the Arctic Cat assembly line back in 1965 (confirmed by the Antique Snowmobile Association).

Belnap’s rear-engine snowmobile has a top speed of 15 mph, give or take a mile an hour or two. Steering is done with an old-fashioned steering wheel linked by a chain to the wide skis up front, exemplifying the machine’s most obvious characteristic -- simplicity. It has one gear for forward and one for reverse and is powered by a new 10 horsepower engine.

In other words, it bears scant resemblance to the modern snowmobile. But how many of the 2011 models will be operating in 2055?

Belnap’s 83-year-old father, Grant, bought it from a local man in 1965 as a way to get from the highway to his summer trailer in Island Park.

“The (original owner) bought it and his wife said, ‘You can keep the snow machine or you can keep me’,” Bryant says. “My father bought it (from him) for $300 -- it had never been used.”

For five years or so the machine became the center of the Belnaps’ winter family outings. Last licensed in 1970, it got intermittent use for awhile after that, then it sat unused in Grant Belnap’s barn until August of this year. That was when Bryant hauled it to his home in Ammon and began restoring it, a process that took an astonishingly short four months.

“Every available night, he worked on it,” Bryant’s wife, Glenda, says. Bryant and Glenda Belnap own and operate Idaho Falls Physical Therapy.

Bryant, with help from some friends and a number of local fabricating and repair businesses, took the machine apart and painstakingly restored them, piece by piece. By early November it was ready for unveiling. He recently took the machine to his parents’ small farm near Roberts to show them the finished product.

“You could see them -- through the snow machine they began to relive all those wonderful family memories,” he says.

Snowmobiling has changed a lot in the intervening 45 years, obviously: “It’s a testosterone sport now,” says Glenda. “It was more of a family activity (back then),” adds Bryant. “They could talk to each other as it was happening.”

What the old 450 lacks in speed and sleekness it makes up for in durability. Now outfitted with a new 10 horsepower motor, it was originally equipped a similar 10-horsepower Kohler motor that probably could have been restored as well, had Belnap chosen to take the time and expense.

“The old four-cycle motors just ran and ran and ran and ran,” he says.

Other than the motor and the upholstery, the machine is essentially original, including the fiberglass hood and window glass.

To the Belnaps, the snow machine is far more than a simple mode of transportation -- it’s a symbol of good times from an era now nearly a half-century past. At the time, it was an oddity.

“I don’t think we saw another snow machine that whole winter,” Bryant Belnap says of that first winter with the 450.

“That’s the most expensive sled I’ve ever owned,” he says.

This winter, and presumably for winters to come, it’ll continue to haul Belnaps around in the snow at a speed that won’t give many thrills but a lot of memories.

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